Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Hamilton Building
Through Oct 13, 2013
By Jacob Feige
Nearly forty years after Jennifer Bartlett first gained attention in the 1970s, her painting practice encompasses a greater variety of approaches than perhaps any other well-known living painter. If others embracing such a variety often define their practices by deliberate disparity—Gerhard Richter most famously—Bartlett forms a cohesive consciousness in her work, built with a striking range of methods: dots, text, photorealism, geometric pattern, and much more, sometimes separately, often all at once. History of the Universe – Works 1971-2011 is a retrospective of Bartlett’s work, currently at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, skewed towards her representational tendencies. More interestingly, it is a qualitative glimpse into the artist’s thinking, where pattern, intense memory, and everyday life coexist seamlessly.
Nowhere is this consciousness more vivid than in “Air: 24 Hours,” a series of twenty-four large square paintings—one for each hour of the day—painted in 1991 and 1992. Four from the series are in the exhibition at PAFA, three of which are plain interior rooms full of unremarkable things, layered with colored grids, text, and little clock faces telling the time. In Five A.M. a wobbly cartoon couple dances above musical notation, a fleeting thought in early morning stillness. Eleven P.M. shows scrawled notes on a table, some offering cursory clues into Bartlett’s process: “always start any new cycle with midnight.” The most compelling work of the series, and of the exhibition, is Eleven A.M., depicting crates, cardboard boxes, and the artist’s signature square steel plates sitting on a wooden floor. Several patterned grids overlay the scene and form a corollary to the dense array of floorboards, which Bartlett paints in meticulous spatial perspective with nearly endless variations of beige and brown. Together these elements take the viewer into the mental space of the artist and the visual space of her studio floor, an insignificant moment, lost in commonplace thought. To find a way of qualitatively expressing the humdrum day-to-day is no easy task, and one that Bartlett does very well. Off kilter in the lower right of the painting are the New York Post and the New York Times, reminders of the contrast between quiet daily routines and newsworthy events. A sensational headline is Bartlett’s residual reference to the instability and flux of the outside world, which she mostly keeps at bay in her work.
Unlike the “Air: 24 Hours” works, banal subjects are more predictably dull in Bartlett’s worst representational paintings, often inspired by the pastoral setting of her summer studio on eastern Long Island. Many of these landscapes and floral paintings, made with a system of wobbly, parallel brushstrokes, are softened and drained of energy by their conventionally placid subjects. In Roses and Grasses, two recent diptychs, soporific motifs overwhelm compellingly layered color, and the works can’t be saved from themselves. But Bartlett is a constant experimenter, absorbing, rehashing and re-contextualizing. These same wobbly, parallel brushstrokes become a compelling pattern of interference in Two Feet of Snow, a large diptych showing two parallax views of an inexplicable rectangular recession in a snowy field.
Risk taking of the sort that Bartlett has made a constant companion is bound to lead to revelations and failures. Perhaps the weakest work included in this exhibition is therefore an error in curatorial judgment more than an artistic one. Originating at the Parrish Art Museum, not far from the artist’s summer studio on Long Island, the exhibition is somewhat overloaded with Bartlett’s works of Long Island pastoralism. Two combined painting and sculptural works in this vein, Boats and Two Houses, fall flat enough to be worse than failed experiments. Their fabricated white sculptural components are oppressively sterile in front of hand-made companion canvases.
Fortunately, the exhibition also includes risky works in which Bartlett combines unlikely approaches to interesting and strange effect. Twins, 2005-6, merges her iconic dot and grid methods with text and loose paintings of coffee cups. Among those grid formations are her signature house forms, one part minimalist geometry, one part symbol of domesticity. The text, embedded in a large dot matrix on the edge of decipherability, forms a symmetrical composition, mirrored on the right hand side of the work. The playful message, if the viewer takes the time to decode it, concerns two people being as close as twins, each simultaneously good and evil, an apparent reference to Bartlett’s close friendship with the painter Elizabeth Murray. In characteristic Bartlett form, the enormous work on steel panels is both a casual conversation at the kitchen table over coffee and an alien message decoded from the ether.
Though Bartlett’s most distilled grid and dot works are absent from History of the Universe, abstraction is still found occupying numerous roles. In an interview with the Parrish Art Museum’s director Terry Sultan in the exhibition’s catalogue, Bartlett points out that she has long found the discussion of figure versus abstraction to present a false dichotomy. Colored pattern grids mark the passing of time in “Air: 24 Hours,” dots denote coded messages, and striations form the molecular units of pictorial space in other paintings. In Atlantic Ocean, a 1984 seascape of epic proportions on hundreds of steel plates, each square is a serial variation within a limited vocabulary of brushstrokes; the whole is more painterly typology than placid ocean view. In this and others among her stronger works, Bartlett is a shape-shifter, hiding complex pattern in the guise of a benign perceptual moment, and vice versa. In its endless permutation and recombination, Bartlett’s painting project strays into occasionally boring territory but has remained in constant reinvention, four decades on. There certainly are bad Bartlett paintings, but more importantly for an artist past the middle of her career, no work is a self-trope, and many works stake out genuinely new space for painting.
Jacob Feige is an artist and Assistant Professor of Art at the Richard Stockton College of NJ. His work is currently on view in Jacob Feige: Paintings 2008-2013 at the College Gallery, Stockton College and A city(ies) that walked at Tiger Strikes Asteroid and Fjord in Philadelphia.